Former Bodley Fellow, President of Merton College Charitable Corporation (MC3), Prosser Gifford, Dies at 91

July 5, 2020

Prosser Gifford of Woods, Hole Massachusetts, was an accomplished scholar, author, educator, academic administrator, director of think tanks and centers of scholarship and inquiry, and sportsman. His unfailing personal integrity and gentle, thoughtful nature complemented enormous strengths.  Among his virtues were a voracious lifelong appetite for learning and robust civil discourse, his passion for social justice and his energetic enthusiasm for vigorous physical activity such as world class sailing. “Pross”, as he was known informally, died peacefully in his home on July 5, 2020 with his family by his side on July 5, 2020.  He was 91.

Pross long will be remembered for his kindness, his expansive spirit, intellectual discernment, open mind, and most distinctly for his signature booming laugh that could be identified anywhere by all who met him.  As fellow Mertonian and founder of MC3 Bob McKelvey put it, “It was possible to find him in a crowded room in an instant.” In brief, Prosser Gifford was good company.

The tall, lanky, craggy, gravel voiced, indifferently and slightly rumpled but invariably appropriately dressed Dr. Gifford, was the quintessential real life embodiment of a scion of an old Yankee family; which he was, from the top of his tousled full head of hair to the tips of sensibly, preferably nautical shoe shod toes. In its golden age, Hollywood would have cast Walter Pidgeon, Gregory Peck, or possibly Edward Everett Horton Jr. (in lifts) to play the part.

His authentic Yankee roots originated from a bit further south than New England. Prosser was born May 16, 1929 in New York City, the only child of Barbara Prosser and John Archer Gifford. He was the grandson of Constance Barber Prosser and Seward Prosser, Chairman of Bankers Trust Co. and philanthropist, and Helen Conyngham Gifford and Charles Alling Gifford, of Newark, New Jersey, an architect who designed the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire and numerous armories and courthouses along the Northeastern coast of the United States.

Prosser graduated from the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut in 1947, before going to Yale University to earn his undergraduate degree in 1951. He matriculated as a Rhodes Scholar at Merton in 1951, reading English. Returning to the United States in 1953, he completed a law degree at Harvard in 1956 and then went back to Yale to gain a PhD in History in 1964.

While continuing at Yale as an assistant professor he taught  undergraduates and graduates  and wrote about African History. As told by Pross in an Amherst College oral history interview, utterly unexpectedly on an especially rainy day he was visited in his Yale office by an enormous soaking wet, poncho clad Calvin Plimpton, the then President of Amherst . Plimpton, who Prosser knew only slightly, lured him away to serve as the first Dean of the Faculty at the prestigious Massachusetts liberal arts college. Prosser served deftly in that role during the tumultuous years from 1967 until 1979. During this tough time of civil rights, Vietnam war and Watergate activism on American campuses, Pross was an effective champion for coeducation, equal rights, and free speech. Prosser wrote later that his proudest achievements during his twelve-year tenure as Amherst Dean were leading the commission that resulted in College Trustees admitting women in 1974 and increasing the number of women faculty members from one when he arrived to twenty-six when he left.

In 1979 he became Deputy Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Over his eight years there he brought together hundreds of scholars from around the world to collaborate on research, writing, and discussion of national and world issues. The Wilson Quarterly described Prosser as an “exemplar of the strenuous life.” He was tireless in his pursuit of knowledge, reading three to four books a week and amassing a library of over 9,000 volumes in his home, organized using his proprietary Gifford Decimal System.

Prosser left the Wilson Center to become the  Director of Scholarly Programs at the Library of Congress, a position created for him which he held for fifteen years until his retirement in 2005. He was the first director of the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress that brought together some of the world’s eminent thinkers and supervised the selection of the $1 million Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences. Over the course of his long productive career Prosser wrote a series of books on British and German colonialism in Africa and had extensive experience as an editor of books on African history and United States policy.

It is an understatement to note that in “retirement” Pross remained busy. In 2005, he and his wife Deedee moved from Washington, DC to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, as the third generation of their family to live on the water there. Prosser spent his time writing and serving on the board or volunteering with numerous local institutions. He was Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Marine Biological Laboratory for thirteen years, was an Honorary Member of the Corporation of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), President of the Woods Hole Public Library and served in varying capacities for a dozen other organizations including the Falmouth Chorale, Falmouth Academy, Highfields Hall and the Church of the Messiah.

Since a young child, Prosser’s great passion was sailing. He met his vivacious athletic wife named at birth Shirley, but known to all as Deedee,  in a sailing race in Woods Hole when he was 11 years old and she was 9. They were active members of the Ensign fleet in Quissett. Many claim Deedee was the better skipper. He crewed for the Bermuda Race half a dozen times and raced trans-Atlantic twice, and once a hurricane-filled trial from New York to Spain. He captained his own boat the Windhover twenty-eight times between Woods Hole and Solomons Island, Maryland, a trip that became known as the “Annual Stress Test” for its unpredictable weather and mechanical mishaps, For unsuspecting crews it was not a pleasure cruise up or down the East coast.

Prosser was married to Deedee for 56 years until her death in 2010. He is survived by his three daughters, Barbara, Paula and Heidi; their respective spouses Bill Shimer, Chris McKenzie, and George Melas-Kyriazi, and his six grandchildren: Eliot and Sophie Shimer; Jessica and Melanie McKenzie; and Luke and Lily Melas-Kyriazi. The interests and chosen occupations of Prosser’s children and grandchildren reflect the broad-ranging passions of their grandfather: environmental affairs, medicine, healthcare strategy; computer science and artificial intelligence. One grandchild, Luke Melas-Kyriazi, will follow his grandfather’s early, but perhaps now for Luke at the start a virtual voyage across the Atlantic. as he begins the term as a 2020 Rhodes Scholar at Oxford this fall.

Pross served from 1998 to 2006 as the second president of MC3 succeeding Roderick Richards and eventually handing off to John Kirby. He remained a life trustee of the organization until his passing. He and Deedee, his enthusiastic constant companion, attended and livened up College and MC3 events up until the end of their lives. Pross was a great friend of the College which he loved and served so well. The College flag was flown at half mast upon news of Prosser’s death.

Prosser Gifford, whether family, friends or anyone privileged to know you , we all miss you. We need to remember and emulate your virtues and your steady hand navigating through a contentious period in our collective history. Your life’s beacon light can help us steer through our present storms to a better safer world.

Nick Allard 1974